“I wanted to quit, but I just can’t. It just makes me want to do something for the kids,” says Perez, who wears a long salt-and-pepper beard, oversized sombrero and colorful poncho when he assumes the role of Pancho.
ZOOT SUIT PANCHO
“Pancho Claus! Pancho Claus!” thousands of children chant excitedly, stomping their feet. Just as the shouting reaches fever pitch, Pancho arrives — this one dressed in his signature red and black zoot suit, fedora perched on head, waving from the back of a lowrider as he throws stuffed animals into the crowd.
This is Houston’s Pancho, aka Richard Reyes.
Reyes, 62, transformed into Pancho in the early 1980s, blending his interests in theater with his Hispanic heritage and a desire to work with at-risk, low-income children — a mission he took on after his teenage sister was killed in a drive-by shooting.
Reyes put his own spin on Pancho, adopting the zoot suit and fedora, and started producing a short show that was a takeoff on the poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” That eventually grew into a play with a 10-piece band and hip-hop dancers, many of whom Reyes met while working in detention centers and community centers. His nonprofit endeavor now has a $40,000 budget with three corporate sponsors.
“It’s grown amazingly,” says Reyes. “Now we give out hundreds of toys, if not thousands, with other agencies and we also have a big Christmas Eve party for about 300 families … and then on Christmas Day itself we actually go to the barrios with lowrider cars with sirens blaring … and give out toys there.”
This year, due to what Reyes called a technical glitch, one sponsor dropped out, forcing Reyes to cut back on the number of shows. Still, he says: “Not one child will get less of a toy, which means not one family that calls us and finds us this year is going to be told no.”
SANTA AND HIS … DONKEY?
About 200 miles away is another Pancho. This one wears a sombrero and serape. He hangs out at San Antonio’s River Walk, and poses in front of the Alamo. And, according to fliers that make the rounds, his gifts are carried in a cart pulled by trusty “burritos” — as in, well, burros. Forget Rudolph’s red nose. A head donkey named “Chuy” leads the way for this Claus.
In San Antonio, Pancho visits schools and churches to hand out gifts and turkeys with all the trimmings to 50 low-income families. And Pancho, portrayed by Rudy Martinez, has grown so popular he even has a public information officer.
“The end result,” says spokesman Patrick Resendez, “is putting that smile on their face.”